I'd like to ask a question that has to do with consent.

  • Do you believe that those suffering from dementia are able to fully give consent to sex?
  • Would it be unethical if one were having sex with a dementia patient with full knowledge that they may not be in 100% control of their cognitive faculties?

I attempted coming at this from a utilitarian point of view and I simply don't see a simple solution. I think we need to determine the entire nature of consent.

  • 1
    Interesting question and good that it is focused on a single issue. Yet "not being 100% in control of ones cognitive faculties" applies to many situations (including other psychological disfunctions), so an answer to this question might applicable to a whole class of situations.
    – DBK
    Dec 16, 2014 at 20:31

2 Answers 2


I don't think you can address this from a Utilitarian point of view, because utility is not well-defined for those who do not have a consistent view of the world, and whose world-view is continually evolving or shifting to a great degree, such as children and the mentally ill. You need to be more conservative, and work from the 'limited interchangeability of individuals'. The clearest picture of that is from Kant.

From a Kantian perspective, the deduction that renders the "Universalizable" version of the Categorical Imperative to the "Ends-Means" version gives us the clue. We cannot universally approved of manipulation based on superior agency, or we all become puppets of the brightest sociopath among us. Instead, we need to find a way of negotiating that respects limited agency.

To me, that question has to come down to the possibility of reciprocal agreement. An unconscious person cannot agree, and someone like a child cannot agree with an adult in a way that is truly reciprocal: the child's stated agreement is based on a more limited understanding of consequences, and what they are agreeing to is not really the same thing as what the adult is agreeing to.

So the question is whether continuous working memory is necessary for reciprocal agreement, or whether agreement can be based on the facts present in the moment. I think that the answer is not the same in all cases, but I would argue it depends upon the nature of the facts, and that the unimpaired individual is competent to know the difference.

We are ourselves both in the moment, in that we have a personality of a certain character, and across time, in that our decisions reflect what is going on around us, and we can change that character. Agreement that is in accord with the stable character of the person making it can be accepted even when that person is impaired.

If you do not have adequate exposure to the individual when lucid, you may not be competent to make that judgement, and in that case, expecting consent is out of order. Also, if recent changes which the disabled person may not have processed correctly have taken place that might have real bearing to bias the decision in a negative direction, it is not safe to accept positive consent that has significant potential negative consequences that the individual has not already faced.

But uniformly deciding that someone who was once competent to initiate sexual relationships no longer is, is insulting and punitive. So it is not a good idea to assume the impossibility of consent without analysis of the individual case.



From a utilitarian perspective, everybody wins. The person suffering with dementia gives consent (so they are happy). And the other person is also happy for obvious reasons. There is a net increase in utility, hence the act is ethical


For something to be morally good according to Kant, it must satisfy three things:

  1. The action must not treat anyone as a means to an end
  2. The action must respect the liberty of individuals
  3. The action must be universalisable.

For the first part, I am quite certain that getting a dementia sufferer to consent to sex is treating them as a means to an end.

Getting them to consent to sex does respect their liberty, so we are fine on 2.

The third one isn't really applicable here (I don't think).

So I think we can say according to kant that the action is unethical..

But you are right, as is often the case we need more information, you stated in the question that the dementia sufferer "may not be in 100% control". It is a good question, since it combines aspects of ethics with the medical sciences.

  • Replaced too-long comment with different answer.
    – user9166
    Dec 16, 2014 at 19:18
  • @surelyourejoking Your reading on Kant here is dubious at best. Specifically, the use of "liberty" in the second term and the loss of "maxim" from the third term severely undermine the accuracy. Kant has more to say about these in the Metaphysics of Morals...
    – virmaior
    Dec 21, 2014 at 21:09

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